McCormick Magazine

Making an impact with green energy in Panama


For members of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), school breaks don't mean time on sandy beaches or ski slopes. They mean chances to improve environmental, social, and economic sustainability throughout the world. With such big goals come big challenges, but these students aren't afraid to leave the country — and their comfort zones — in order to make a difference.

In addition to local projects that aim to make shuttle buses more green and middle school students more knowledgeable about sustainability, the McCormick chapter of ESW currently has three projects aimed at improving energy, sustainability, and quality of life in Central America.

eswHarnessing the sun in Panama
In Panama's rural Chagres National Park, ESW has worked to bring electricity to two communities — Santo Domingo and Santa Librada — that are off the grid. Park regulations restrict the communities from using grid electricity, so over the past three years teams of McCormick students have used their spring, summer, and winter breaks to help install photovoltaic systems on buildings, fences, and schools.

In Santo Domingo, students installed solar panels to provide electricity for cattle fences. Such fences not only separated farmers' cattle but also helped prevent jaguar attacks — a real danger in the area. Based on the success of that project, students installed solar panels to light the local school and power a charging station for batteries. (The sole previous source of electricity in Santo Domingo was batteries, which residents had to charge in the closest town, which is two hours away.) Students also gave a computer to the school — the only one in the community — and modified the lighting system to include an outlet to charge the computer. "Before we brought it down, students didn't use a computer until high school," says Christopher Vega (electrical engineering '10).

The group also worked with a group of students in McCormick's Engineering Design and Communication program to develop a system for electrifying houses in Santo Domingo with solar panels. Last summer a group of ESW students installed panels on three houses, and then the government installed panels on another 10 houses in November. This spring, a group of ESW members installed panels on four more houses.

"Our model is education with implementation," says Suelyn Yu (mechanical engineering '10). "Whenever we install a project like this, we work with the community, set up workshops, invite them to work with us, and create a committee to take care of it. They really take ownership of the project."

In Santa Librada, students installed a similar solar system to supply energy to a school — but instead of supplying a computer, they added a much-needed freezer system. Santo Domingo is "a lot more spread out," says Vega. "The teacher would have to take 30 minutes to walk home from the school every day to get food for the children. With a freezer, they can keep perishables nearby."

For another project in Portobelo, an old colonial town of 1,600 people on the Caribbean coast of Panama, ESW members worked on an energy problem of a different kind: a 10,000-gallon septic tank that was in disrepair due to poor design and 40 years of neglect. "It had never been emptied, it wasn't settling properly, and the water that was coming out was polluted," Vega says. After muddling through red tape, the group emptied the tank last summer to see how it could be improved.

"This spring we'll modify the pipes in the tank and make it a double-filtration system," Vega says. But in order to implement the next phase — creating a sludge-drying bed where waste can be directed and reclaimed for fertilizer instead of floating out to the bay — students will have to get through a little more paperwork.

"Eventually we hope to implement a filter to make the water even cleaner," Vega says.

panamaImplementation with education
Though they only visit each community for a week or two at a time, McCormick's ESW students say that their reliability — coming back to check on projects a couple times a year — has helped build trust with locals. Vega, who speaks Spanish, visits homes to help explain projects to residents. Students then suggest ways residents can help. "In Santo Domingo and Santa Librada, the locals are a lot more hands-on," he says. "They want to know what's going on. They want to collaborate with us. We have the technical background, and they know their surroundings."

The group has had more difficulty with residents in Portobelo. Because it's a bigger city, residents are often at work during the day, so it's harder for the students to get to know the community. "This is our fourth year," Yu says. "I'm sure in the beginning it took a while to get their trust. But when you keep coming back and showing progress, they start to trust you."

When ESW members visit a project site, it's not all work. Students often sleep at the community school, and sometimes the children come and sleep at the school with them. Whenever they are working on a project, residents insist they stop for a home-cooked lunch, and show them around important parts of the community, like the local herbal medicine doctor's house.

"Because we have a limited budget, they help us out by giving us a place to sleep and food to eat," Vega says. "And at night the community comes to where we are staying and visits with us. It's all about building a relationship."

ESW continues to seek out new projects. This spring for the first time they headed down to Teustepe, Nicaragua, to work with a nonprofit called Green Empowerment to design and install a biogas digester that will capture methane gas from manure so it can be used for cooking and lighting. Families in the community devote at least an hour a day to foraging for firewood and spend $6 a month on kerosene for lamps, so the digester will provide them with better, cleaner fuel. "Kerosene is really inefficient," Yu says. "It doesn't produce much heat, and it's not good for their health or the environment."

This, too, will be the beginning of a several years-long project. Such projects have taught ESW members about group work that can span long periods of time.

"I'm much more realistic about international work now," Yu says. "It's not easy. You can't just go in and implement a project and leave. It's a commitment. We believe in nonabandonment, and that's hard to do when you keep getting new members and don't have a lot of continuity. But we love the work, and it's worth it when you see the results. It's worth it when you know you're making someone's quality of life better."

—Emily Ayshford

To learn more about ESW, visit